Buying houses that are off-market?

My wife was telling me that her friend's mom just bought a house that wasn't listed on the market (nor did she know the owners) by having her agent seek it out. Apparently this agent has a bit of a knack for doing this, and she didn't pay a premium to get the house. She approaches homeowners who don't have their house listed, but are interested in selling (not sure how she identifies them, however).

We live in a hot housing market (Seattle) where bidding wars are the norm and decent houses don't last more than a week before being snatched up, not to mention prices are insance. Since our rental lease is in a Spring cycle (up for renewal in May), winter is the best time to look for and put offers in on houses. The problem is that supply is always super low during that time.

We're thinking of contacting this agent and seeing what she can do for us, but I'm just curious if this is a common thing. Are the people who are approached in these scenarios already willing to sell, but don't want to put the effort into listing? Other than that I can't think of a scenario when this kind of offer wouldn't result in a premium being applied to the price, other than perhaps the house being in need of a good amount of work.

Is there anything I should be aware of when engaging an agent to look for off-market houses?

More real estate tips at Program Realty Wix site

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